It’s not often that we are underwhelmed by a destination, but that is exactly how we felt when we visited Point Reyes National Seashore. It was a surprising turn of events, particularly because Point Reyes looks like an ideal retreat from San Francisco, at least on paper. The triangular shape of land is bordered by Hwy 1 on one side and vast expanses of frothy ocean on every other side. The area was established by President Kennedy in 1962 as a wildlife sanctuary for elephant seals, elks, and seabirds. As such, there are almost seemingly endless opportunities to view wildlife in their natural habitat along the ruggedly beautiful California coast. To add interest, the San Andreas Fault runs through the area, and an outdoor trail showing the effects of the fault line offers intrigue. Plus, there is a lighthouse. You can’t go wrong with a lighthouse.
~Beautiful views from atop the hill at Point Reyes~
Point Reyes was the last stop on a two-week long trek through some of the finest National Parks and natural beauty California has to offer. In retrospect, I think the position in the lineup of grand destinations might have cast an unfavorable pall on Point Reyes for us. That said, we arrived in Point Reyes with 36 hours to spend exploring the area and wasted no time in heading towards the most popular attraction in the area.
~Fog surrounding the lighthouse as we arrived~
Point Reyes Lighthouse sits on a rocky bluff that is known as one of the windiest and foggiest places on the Pacific Coast, a weather phenomenon that we experienced in spades during our visit. With the influx of trade due to the California Gold Rush in the late 1800’s this area became a major shipping channel, and a danger zone for incoming ships. The newly established state of California solved this problem by erecting a lighthouse in 1870 where it remained in commission for 105 years. A modern light was installed in 1975, but the original lighthouse remains as an important piece of maritime history.
~Looking up into the Fresnel lens~
From a history and lighthouse buff perspective, Point Reyes Lighthouse is unique in that it is the only West Coast light with a first order Fresnel lens floating on wheels and still connected to the original clockwork. From a hiking perspective, the trek to and from the lighthouse is strenuous enough to be interesting, but not so strenuous that it is prohibitive for most visitors. The most challenging part of the hike is the 308 steps that descend to the lighthouse. Those prove to be a challenge on the ascending return trip, but with plenty of stops along the way, it is doable. It is important to know that this bluff that is known as the windiest certainly lives up to its name. For safety, the stairs are closed when the wind is above 40 miles per hour. Even when the wind is at a safe rate, it still whips with a fierceness that makes layers a must.
~308 steps eventually get to be too much for little legs~
The best thing going for the lighthouse are the possible angles that make this a photographer’s dream. Of course, that dream can turn quickly into disappointment as the fog often rolls in and obscures a potentially perfect picture. On the positive side, the fog is often fickle, and while it rolls in for a moment, it can easily fade away a few moments later. During our visit, we experience both the agony of the arrival of the fog and the thrill of its departure within a span of 30 minutes. Although the fog was kind enough to allow us to get a few clear pictures, it stayed around with a thickness that obscured any chance of seeing any wildlife out in ocean. The chance to see whales migrating or hear seals barking might have elevated the hike from so-so to spectacular, but the winds, although ever-present, were not in our favor.
~Two pictures taken within ten minutes.~
Even after time to reflect, I still feel like our experience at Point Reyes was just average , but I can’t stop feeling badly about that assessment (maybe it’s the Southern in me). With so many rave reviews and recommendations about the area, I have to think that something in our overall experience colored the perception. Maybe after a week of seeing the best of the best in California, like Yosemite and Big Sur, Point Reyes just couldn’t compete. Or perhaps Point Reyes can run with the big dogs of natural beauty, but we had just reached our saturation with one scenic vista too many. My best guess is that Point Reyes is one of those places, like so many others, that either captures your heart or it doesn’t. If our family was a Zagat’s guide, we give it a solid 2.5 stars. Our hearts remain solidly in the "meh" category.